I spent last week in the big city working on a commercial and crossed another production while driving to my set one day. It’s kind of funny to see the (literal) signs of filming on location that thousands of people are oblivious to.
First there’s the yellow placard at the street corner, rather inconspicuous, telling those in the know to turn “here.” This will never display the show’s title, but perhaps the initials or the production company’s name.
Sometimes everything’s clustered together and sometimes parking, basecamp, work trucks and location are spread apart. In some ordered combination are the white box trucks, lined up just so, and trailers, with a parade of passenger vans making the rounds. A bank of crew cars may display matching parking passes tucked on their dashboards.
Closer to set may be large equipment as lifts or cranes, as well as an array of pop up tents and carts, metal stands and big black or white sheets. Lights and cameras are the big giveaway. Some passers by may be accustomed to the scene, “ oh another movie,” some intrigued, “ oo what are you filming?” and some annoyed, “BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP!”
This can be home for weeks or just a couple of hours, when the AD proclaims, “We’re done here, company moves!”
And in a slow motion blink of an eye, hundreds of people, gear, equipment, vehicles and all – POOF – are gone, with the cinematic caravan on to the next location.
Typically a cheat in production world is visual, like faking one location for another, playing with an Actor’s eyeline, or shooting day for night. My favorite cheat happened in secret, long ago.
A very established Actress came to set but forgot her glasses. “I’m blind as a bat.” She and I spent quite some time going over her scene – 2 pages of a phone call, with her character doing most of the talking. Her version of the lines weren’t close enough. These Writers placed clues (not shared with us) into their scripts and wanted the dialogue delivered as written.
Picture’s up. Props handed me a cell phone so I could read the other side of the conversation to our Actress through the phone instead of screaming them out. I was moved away from set for sound. Our Actress dashed over and asked me to read HER lines instead of the ones she was supposed to respond to. A couple takes in a couple sizes and we were done. High five!
This was the only time she wasn’t right on the nose that I saw, and it was kind of fun to sneak through the scene this way. Now a friend comes home from working on a show out of town with a big name Actor, who wore a hidden earpiece and brought his own guy dedicated to feeding him his lines. Is that a cheat? It kinda sounds more like a lie.
A decade ago I worked on a show whose Executive Producer ‘demanded’ his rental car be a Prius, and that there was no plastic flatware at catering (he was actually in the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car). I’ve worked on sets that gift crew a refillable water bottle to clip to your belt or bag. Now I’m seeing projects proudly declare themselves GREEN by banning the plastic water bottles altogether, telling crew to bring their own reusable bottle to refill from 5 gallon jugs or coolers.
So what does going green on set really mean?
It means refilling your reusable water bottles from the lip of the same water dispenser a hundred other people are using all day, unconsciously putting their dirty bottle up to the spigot. Spreading germs/bacteria/virus around the crew like wildfire, going from bottle rim to bottle rim – basically mouth to mouth, resulting in nearly everyone coughing and sneezing on set. …For weeks and weeks because the show must go on and folks be working those 13 hour days, without enough rest between time to heal.
Where’s the green? You mean the color of the gooey infected mucus hacked up out of the lungs, or the few bucks saved by production in not buying cases of individual single serving water bottles that touch your lips and your lips alone?
Shows try to set up recycling, difficult with ever changing locations and funny schedules to drop off the goods. The AD’s often have paper recycle in their trailer. Call sheets and maps are often sent electronically. But why not try some real changes like:
use clean renewable biodiesel for the work trucks
film more often on stages or nearby locations, saving fuel
have above-the-line self drive instead of passenger vans doing 2 round trips for each Actor, Director, Writer, also saving fuel
use non toxic or “organic” paints and materials in set construction, as well as cleaners
use more locally grown/raised food for catering instead of corporate food trucked across the country
use recycled paper in the office
have Director and Producer SHARE a trailer at basecamp
This is just off the top of my head but seem like worthy pursuits, yes? NO. Why not? Because it’s too inconvenient, and too expensive, especially compared to the fake feel good virtue signaling (OMG I’ve never used that term before) of “reducing plastic” while breeding sickness. I dunno, maybe some show out there is making progress in a real way, creating a healthy sustainable work environment. Sick crew can’t give 100%. The crew crud is nothing new, but why make it worse, creating walking pneumonia? Spreading it through families, missing school or work, slamming over the counter drugs, perhaps Dr visits and prescriptions. Setting us up for that chain of events doesn’t sound green.
Do not get me wrong, I am a tree hugger! I live on a farm, compost like mad, work to reuse reuse reuse -from jars to clothing to grey water, and am conscious of not buying/bringing home stuff that makes waste with crazy packaging. I drive (and repair) an old car, and buy things used when possible. On set I would bring home my empty plastic water bottles to recycle. What ideas do YOU have for a greener set and greener world?
Hubby working out of town means a chance for some deep cleaning and organizing. While slowly sorting through random stacks and stashes in the office, I came across one of my old films. Like actual film, like in a can.
Finding this is jarring for several reasons. Bound in bubble wrap with a hand written note from a dear friend recently deceased, I haven’t seen this projected for decades. And honestly…I don’t quite remember which film this is, long ago passed to Dave in NOLA to view at a movie theater he managed part time, entrusted to him as a bond between friends moving in different directions.
During that time, at then slightly indulgent, brain expanding, childhood-dream fulfilling graduate school, we scholars watched hundreds of films a week. Some were shockingly short, some were feature length and beyond, way beyond.
To clarify, this was not like flipping through the internet, or watching on a screen the size of a credit card while multitasking. This was intentionally sitting in the dark, quietly, viewing each work with respect – extracting anything we could of a message, a tone, an idea, or observing what was stirred up inside of self.
By no means were all the films good. But the process and approach was, creating an environment that encouraged one to stretch and play and strive to express something as only YOU could, on film.
Even though this was not as spontaneous or easy as pulling a phone out to use for camera, editor, screen and distribution method, between friends it wasn’t uncommon to pop off 100 feet, experimenting with lenses or lighting, getting lost in a wee world created in that tiny eyepiece. For fun. And later, screening those few minutes together was in a sense a celebration.
So many of those faces and places are gone – passed on or moving in a lifetime that no longer exists for me other than in memory and celluloid. Almost within the same moment that I reach to tear off the plastic wrapping, I set this film can down, content with a small mystery of my own making.
Standard Commercials are a different beast, but tend to be easier work for the Script Supervisor than a long project. The “script” may be just storyboards (pictures), a page of narration, voice-overs and/or description. There may be several commercial spots, or framing formats for social media and different sized screens.
Some crew crosses over with movies and TV, but some folks work commercials only.
Generally, Royalty is not the Producer or Director, but the Agency – the Ad Agency, representing the Client, dictating by very expensive consensus. The star of the show is not an Actor, but a product. A famous Actor will get some pampering, but the no-names are basically props to support the thingy.
I finished the year working on a commercial for a cleaning product. We had messy floors, smudgy glass panes and lots of laundry. Crew came from throughout North America.
Near the end of the 3rdday, the young Canadian DP (Director of Photography) asked the American AD (Assistant Director) if the next shot was “the window.” The AD looked surprised and explained that we’re done filming the window pane and are setting up for the table top. They looked at one another in confusion. I stepped in with a bit of interesting but useless to me information that had apparently been years lying in wait for this very moment.
To AD, “He means the martini. In Canada they call it the ‘window’ cuz after wrap crew used to collect their wages at the pay window.”
To DP, “In the States the last shot is the ‘martini,’ named for a Director readying his cocktail for when they call wrap.”
Slang reflecting different priorities. Unless after the pay window came the bar stool!
Actors are fascinating. They lie for a living. Or, lets say, pretend. Yet when they etch in a character’s map with the highways, side roads and dead ends we all encounter on life’s journey, the Actor becomes truth-teller, reflecting our own circumstance and emotion, or eliciting our reaction to such.
Script Supervisor supports the Actor by running lines, then as we roll, by (gently) correcting dialogue, or actions for matching when needed. Sometimes we are the messenger for the Director, dashing on to the set with his or her suggestion, and sometimes the Director is the messenger for us!
Before a challenging scene Actors may isolate themselves, do jumping jacks, listen to music. On There Will Be Blood crew was asked to dress in muted, somber, sepia-type colors to help engage the period and stylistic mood for Actors, you believe? Crew may also be asked to work quietly or even clear the set. Whatever it takes to help the Actor concentrate, live in the role, despite a dozen folks aiming cameras and microphones up their face.
I once worked on a low budget Indie that had a cameo appearance with an interesting odd bird who could go from charming to grossly inappropriate, or merrily singing oldies to politically boisterous, in a flash. He created such a deep back story for his character that he often thought out loud, adlibbing lines that had no context or connection within the actual script.
His last scene was in a bar, shot on location in a small Texas town. Camera was about to roll. “Watch this.”
He pulled out a yellow onion, and bit into it, over and over, right through the papery skin, gagging chunks of it down, producing tears and mucus for what seemed to be an almost B-roll shot.
That’s entertainment. And dedication.
I’ve wondered if this is tried and true, an old performing trick, if Shakespeare stood by in the wings of The Globe , slipping a shallot to an otherwise complacent Juliet. Or if Dreyer had his silent screen Joan Of Arc snack on some scallions to squeak out those glorious black and white tears, in close up.
We were cutting a reel for a friend and needed a slug of black between shots. BASIC. I don’t edit every day and forgot some of the shortcuts, not to mention what’s in the hundred drop down menu options and tweaks.
Oh where oh where is a simple slug of black? Help was no help. It could not be found by poking around the program. After scanning through a couple articles and a tutorial it was revealed to be “black video.” What should’ve taken 2 seconds took 20 momentum-breaking minutes!
I grumble, then must remember this is a slight inconvenience. Let’s saunter down memory lane. Cutting a film used to literally be cutting the film – first a work print – like practice – then cutting up the negative (no going back here) to match it – the commitment. Negative cutting, or conforming, is a whole nother specialized process.
Editing was on a flatbed, a big mechanical desk with ‘monitors’ that projected the film frames (like microfishe), with speakers playing the sound from the magnetic audio tape. Motors kept picture and sound tracks in synch as they ran reel to reel, lying flat on platters – think of a DJ with 6 to 8 turntables.
BTW using a fantasy name generator, my DJ names are:
There were maybe 3 buttons, and a lever for playback. Cut and tape with a splicer. Any effects like fades and dissolves were imagined, and notated on the actual film to mark where to add the effects into the negative cut. You didn’t see your Fade Up until the cut negative was processed at the lab!
Twas a rare luxury for Independents to cut the negative, make a final print, then recut the negative again. All time and money, Baby, so editing decisions were perhaps taken more seriously back then than today. And perhaps because of the abundance of digital footage and choices for todays Editors, the wise ones utilize the blessing of the Script Supervisor’s notes more than ever, finding it faster to scan through a few pages of detailed notes than a few hours of shots. Everyday.
But I digress.
There was an awkward technology gap for a while. Flatbeds were phased out as film was lumpily forging its digital path, different from typical video. “Ooo now’s my chance,” thought this Silly Rabbit, and heard of a rumored unit for sale in town.
I contacted Steve – Hoop Dreams – James, who decided he was too sentimentally attached to his Steenbeck, but graciously invited me to HQ to edit my short film on it. He brought me to the flatbed’s dedicated room. It was covered in potted plants! Did I dream this part? We moved the greenery and removed the fitted plastic cover. I began to edit.
And within an hour it froze up. Steve couldn’t figure out why, and to fix it he’d have to wait for the one guy in the country, James Bond, I kid you not, to make his annual repair rounds to the Midwest.
I then moved away to a town which decades ago declared “film is dead.” And did not finish that short. Woe? No! For it caused me to look at writing more seriously, and stretch from experimental short films to feature length screenplays.
And now technology has become accessible, so that we can shoot and edit in the same day, have several projects in the works at once, can store hundreds of hours of footage, play forever with effects, correct many sound and video issues, pull still shots instantly, and let others around the globe view our progress, all with a few keystrokes. On my teeny laptop, sitting on an end table.
There are still final final steps for “prints” like Blu Ray or DCP, but a whole world has opened up literally at the touch of a few buttons.
Use your power for good, technology! And you dear reader? What’s your Dj name?
A hammer can be used to build or to destroy; it’s in the application. Technology is a tool.
The on set kit bag for the Script Supervisor of yore consisted simply of a stopwatch, pencil, perhaps a colored pencil or pen, and a ruler, for notating on a paper script. The notes were quite important, as was being present on set for corrections, suggestions, and touches to flesh out the story, working shoulder to shoulder with Directors, Actors and Crew. Much information was stored in the Script Supervisor’s head, as memory for matching, or formulas to assess if enough film was in the camera for another take. Because every frame of actual film costs money to print, care was put into every shot.
With Polaroid cameras, continuity pictures became part of the toolset as a visual double-check of wardrobe, hair/ make up, and settings. That shifted to digital still cameras and thus added the digital photo printer to our gear (and added the extra time to print pictures out!). Eventually that drifted into the digital cameras being replaced by phones, and continuity pictures often just taken off the monitor.
As film systems became more digitized so did the Script Supervising workflow, using special software and apps with electronic scripts and forms on our laptops and tablets. Now the formats can be more homogenized (ScriptE or Skarrat anyone?), perhaps more convenient for some who want those notes before the word “wrap” is completely uttered. Even though they may not look at them once the notes are loaded into the editing system. And don’t forget the charging cables and back up batteries, and stands and tables for the machines.
This kit bag is getting heavy!
But external pop-off screen grabs are passé, with converters and down loaders the actual camera footage can be streamed to the Script Sup’s electronic device, and direct screen shots taken from there, to be folded into the script notes. So Script Sup doesn’t even have to sit by the monitors. Now we can capture whole takes, free flowing series of takes that go on and on to replay for the Director to decide what he wanted to match to. And all the dailies can be down loaded too. The expectation, or pressure, to use this ability, along with the blurring of DITs obligations to pull up takes, despite Union rules, make the original Video Assist job passé as well.
Wait what’s happening here? More and different work with the technology, making this feel like a chase rather than a craft.
By now there are 2 to 3 cameras minimum filming simultaneously, perhaps a GoPro or 2 tucked in somewhere for a specific “cool” shot. Oh no! What if the boom dipped into frame, or a camera panned off set into a light, or that prop didn’t land quite where we wanted it too! Don’t reset, just fix it in Post.
And while Post is at it, make that 70 year old Actor look young for a flashback, even if she is now deceased. And with digital mapping who really needs the Actor anyway, and the animated films are no longer cartoons but strive to become photorealistic, so that someday there will be no need for a “set” and no need for on set crew any longer. Progress.
During a job interview, the Show Runner asked how being a writer helped in Script Supervising. Well one of the main ways is seeing when a script is too long. He and the other Producer tripped over each other explaining they were still trimming the scripts, wrestling with the author, etc… I wasn’t even specifically referring to their project!
However, it was true of the episodes I’d read there. Not meaning page count, but more specifically when scenes and sections do not move the story forward or provide meaningful support for any of the layers in the script. Many times I’ve thought “This fluff is n-e-v-e-r going to make it into the movie,” and have often been right. With time or budget limits tis wiser to edit on the page then in the cutting room.
Is the script more icing or more cake?
Script writing, to me, compresses a story that’s bigger than it might read on the page, in a unique format so even literary authors must learn a sort of shorthand to keep within the boundaries. Do chapters equal scenes? Well, a little yes, in separating the story into sections, but a bigger no, because the separation is dictated by locations instead of a shift of ideas.
Screenplays are like skeletons that are then carefully and intentionally dressed in layers with clues in the descriptions or dialogue, then fleshed out by Actors rounding out the characters, by how the sets look, or the costumes, how the pieces are edited together, by the use of sound and music, on and on.
They’re written as to what’s to appear on the screen, not by internal beats meandering through a character’s head or their past, at least not in the same indulgent light a novel may. Writing a screenplay can challenge one to find simple, interesting, and perhaps sneaky, ways to color in the bare spots with meaningful information.
But once you understand the limits there’s a lot of freedom within them. Did your Mama ever send you out to play with a “go in the backyard” or “stay on the block “ or “don’t ride your bike in the street” ? Play within the parameters of what will show on the screen, but play!
That’s a conversation opener I’ve encountered more than once.
I can still hear my little ol’ Auntie basically asking the above. Well, at least this shows there’s an awareness of someone on set at the helm of the script! More than likely this comes from movies about movies themselves, like Singin’ In the Rain, 8 1/2 or Get Shorty, to mention a few off the top of my head.
Particularly in older movies, when a film set was shown in the story, the only woman sitting by the Director as part of the filmmaking process was a secretarial gal with a script on her lap (a more professional example than, uh, what was portrayed in the picture above).
My husband jumps in with enthusiasm as to what an important and influential position this is. I then fill in the gaps, that many men also hold this position, and that it entails much much more than following lines in the script.
In general terms I explain how this is about managing several simultaneous streams of information in a highly organized way, sometimes creating systems to do so. Yes we support, and correct, gently, the Actors, with their dialogue and with continuity to help things match. Continuity causes us to guide or coordinate with several departments, as Hair, Make Up, Props, Set Dressing and Wardrobe, to keep everyone on the same timeline page and matching looks. We work to keep the Directors on point, inform them as to the coverage or shots needed to tie the story together so they can choose how to proceed, and we keep track of their preferences while we are shooting.
All this while also keeping track every time each camera rolls, notating information for each take on each camera, watching for technical errors, and essentially transcribing a map for Editorial, in a way being on-set eyes for the Editor with the goal to get all the pieces necessary to put the project together appropriately, elegantly, if possible.
We keep tabs on what’s been filmed and what’s yet owed for each scene in the script, applying mathematical calculations that translate into scheduling our production days for the AD Department. These numbers also go to the Producers to help them gauge the budgeting for those days.
Our shoulders also bear the responsibility to our fellow crew and cast members in legally documenting our production time on the clock, to ensure everyone gets the appropriate pay, meal penalties and overtime contractually agreed upon by the Union.
On top of the pure logistics, a bit of psychology is involved for there are a lot of egos involved. One must adapt and learn how to earn trust so that people will allow you to help them.
…My Auntie stares at me blankly.
“It’s like being a Junior Director to help get everything right.” Bah.